Confessions of a backslidden vegetarian

Adam Kotsko posted today about why he’s not a vegetarian, even though he seems like the sort of person who should be one. I was a vegetarian, of increasing strictness, for almost 10 years. I found philosophical arguments for vegetarianism convincing (though I never accepted animal rights arguments in their strongest forms). I read lots of books about it. And I posted about it quite a bit on this blog. So why did I stop? Did I discover a previously unnoticed hole in arguments I had once accepted? Or did I just find living without meat unbearable?

Nothing as exciting as that, I’m afraid. Basically, it had to do with pragmatism and a desire to maintain family harmony. My wife and I have two small children (ages 4 and almost 2), and as many people with kids will tell you, getting them to eat can be a challenge. Early on we agreed that we weren’t going to try to enforce a particular diet on them. We would try to make sure they ate a variety of more-or-less healthy foods, but we weren’t going to exclude meat, if that’s what they were willing to eat. (My wife had never been as strict about not eating meat as I had.)

We never intended to eat meat at every, or even most, meals. But eventually it became clear that it would be burdensome for my wife, who does the majority of the cooking in our house, to provide a “vegetarian option” at every meal. So we agreed that I’d eat meat–generally poultry or fish–once or twice a week, along with the rest of the family. This would only be at dinner, since, at least during the work week, we eat breakfast and lunch separately. If I wanted to keep eating veggie at those meals, that would be up to me.

And this arrangement has worked out well for us. The majority of my meals are still vegetarian, but I eat meat with the rest of my family at supper a couple times a week. I’ve generally stuck to poultry and fish, but have occasionally eaten beef too. (For some reason, I still can’t bring myself to start eating pork again.)

I don’t really have a good intellectual rationalization for this, except that figuring out what works best for my family is more important to me than avoiding meat because of my personal scruples. I still think that factory farming is a moral scandal and that we as a society should probably eat a lot less meat. But the difference between me personally eating all vegetarian and just eating mostly vegetarian, as far as its contribution to the sum total of good in the world goes, doesn’t seem worth fussing over at this point in my life. Maybe this will change as my kids get older, but for now call me a demi-vegetarian or a flexitarian. Or maybe just a sellout.

Animal rights is more than Peter Singer

Tony Jones posted a link to a Peter Singer article arguing, among other things, that animal-welfare concerns should trump claims to religious liberty in cases like humane slaughter laws. Whatever the merits of Singer’s argument (Brandon pretty thoroughly demolishes it here), the post at Tony Jones’ blog provides an example of how Christians often react to Singer’s work. At least a couple of commenters dismiss Singer out of hand because of his views on abortion/infanticide/euthanasia.

Now, as someone who would like animal-rights arguments to get a wider hearing in the Christian community, I’m disheartened by this type of response. It seems that many people–not least Christians–treat “Singerian” views on the status of non-human animals as being of a single piece with his views on issues at the boundaries of human life.

But I think this is a mistake for at least a few reasons. First, it’s not clear that someone who accepts Singer-style arguments against irrational species prejudice (say) is committed to embracing his conclusions about the status of fetuses or newborns. It’s possible to accept Singer’s conclusion that animal interests should be included in our moral calculus without accepting his view that it’s okay to painlessly kill beings that lack certain future-oriented preferences.

Second, even within the world of secular theorizing about animal rights, Singer’s approach is far from the only one on offer. In fact, it’s a bit ironic that he’s sometimes referred to as “the father of animal rights” considering that Singer’s moral theory does not include rights as a fundamental component. But there are thinkers who do put rights into the foundation of their theory (e.g., Tom Regan), as well as those who argue for radical changes to the way we treat animals on the basis of contractarian, feminist, neo-Aristotelian, and other moral approaches. And most of these approaches avoid the implications of Singer’s utilitarian ethic that so many balk at.

Finally, the Christian tradition itself has resources for re-thinking our treatment of animals, as I’ve tried to document on this blog. The works of theologians like Andrew Linzey, Stephen Webb, Richard Alan Young, and Jay McDaniel, to name just a few, deploy traditional theological motifs to support an ethical agenda similar to that proposed by secular animal liberationists. They argue that the gospel, rightly understood, demands that we modify or abandon certain practices (such as factory farming) that do violence to the flourishing of God’s beloved creatures.

My personal view is that Peter Singer’s work has contributed to the way we should think about our obligations to non-human animals (and to other vulnerable groups like the global poor). But I also agree with Singer’s many Christian critics that at least some of his other views are objectionable. Whatever one’s stance on Singer’s work, though, it shouldn’t serve as an excuse for Christians not to engage with the challenges to our traditional ways of using animals.

Against the circus

Mother Jones has published a damning report on Ringling Brothers circus and its cruel and abusive treatment of its elephant “performers”:

Feld Entertainment [Ringling's parent company] portrays its population of some 50 endangered Asian elephants as “pampered performers” who “are trained through positive reinforcement, a system of repetition and reward that encourages an animal to show off its innate athletic abilities.” But a yearlong Mother Jones investigation shows that Ringling elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity.

Just as pressures for greater efficiency and higher rates of profit lead to the deplorable conditions of factory farming, the economic logic of the circus is virtually bound to lead to this kind of treatment. This is because the elephants are not “willing performers” but economic commodities. The solution to this, ultimately, isn’t tighter regulation or better enforcement (welcome as that would be), but rejecting the ntotion that these sentient, intelligent, social creatures should be used for human entertainment.

Meat in a vat?

This piece from NPR has generated some interest in the topic of in-vitro meat–that is, meat grown in a lab from a cell culture. Apparently there is a real possibility that sometime in the next decade or so we could see lab-grown meat on our supermarket shelves. On its face, this seems like a win-win for animals and for the environment given the well canvassed evils of industrial meat farming. That is, assuming the resulting product is safe for human consumption.

Undoubtedly the idea of eating meat grown in a petri dish will not sit well with a lot of people, at least initially. Similar to concerns about genetically modified crops, they may consider lab-grown meat “unnatural.” But in the case of GMOs there are legitimate concerns about cross-pollination or other forms of environmental harm that wouldn’t seem to apply here. This likely wouldn’t satisfy everyone, but the way most meat is currently produced isn’t exactly natural either, unless you consider being pumped full of hormones and antibiotics meat’s natural state. Maybe in the in-vitro future, “real” meat will become a niche or luxury item affordable only by the very rich. Or maybe eating real meat will come to be seen as grotesquely immoral given the widespread availability of ethically sound alternatives!

From a vegetarian/animal liberation perspective I can imagine that in vitro meat might seem like admitting defeat or a concession to “carnivore culture” (or “carnism” as some people refer to it): instead of convincing people to give up eating animals through moral persuasion, we’re enabling their flesh-eating ways. But assuming the rationale for animal liberation is reducing or ending the suffering and exploitation of animals, rather than just an objection to meat-eating per se (and what would the rationale for that be?), it’s hard to see this as much more than an emotional response.

I could be persuaded otherwise, and I likely wouldn’t eat “vat-meat” myself, but I have a hard time seeing anything wrong with this apart from the initial “ick” factor.

Peter Singer and Christian ethics conference–audio available

I posted the other week on a conference on dialogue between Peter Singer and Christian ethics. I wanted to note that audio of the sessions is available here. I haven’t listened to any of the sessions yet, but the topics suggest that they’ll be very interesting:

–Utilitarians and Christians
–Animals and the environment
–Utilitarianism, Christian ethics, and moral theory
–Utilitarians in church?
–Responding to global poverty

If you listen to any of the presentations I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Friday Links

–John Cohn at The New Republic on the end of “compassionate conservatism.”

–Should life be more like a game?

– The rise of white identity politics in DC?

–From Book Forum, a collection of links on how we treat animals. (I guess that makes this a meta-link?)

–How Pearl Jam went from being the biggest rock band in the world to a niche act.

–The Thomas Paine-John Adams debate about economic equality in the early American republic.

–I’m not sure the Ramones were the best candidate for an AV Club “Gateways to Geekery” feature. What band could be easier to get into? Just start listening with the first album–it pretty much establishes the template for everything else.

–Joe Klein is shrill.

–More on the flap over Elizabeth Johnson’s book from Daniel Horan, OFM, here and here.

What is the goal of animal-welfare reforms?

Prof. Gary Francione of Rutgers University takes issue–not surprisingly–with the claims made recently on behalf of the effects of animal-welfare reforms on meat consumption. He questions the methodology of the study and also notes that meat consumption is increasing overall (even if welfare reforms might have slowed the rate of increase). He also argues that even if the increase in meat consumption has slowed (or even decreased slightly), this isn’t much to show for the billions of dollars that have been poured into campaigns for welfare reform.

The last point is an important one to consider, I think. And evaluating it requires asking what the ultimate goal of welfare-reformist campaigns are. Is it to improve the conditions under which animals are raised? Or is it to raise awareness about those conditions, thereby encouraging people to eat less meat? If it’s the latter, then it’s far from clear that these kinds of campaigns are the most effective way to go about it (rather than campaigns aimed directly at reducing the consumption of animal products). Welfare-reformist campaigns seem to be sending something of a mixed message if the goal is really to reduce animal consumption.

On the other hand, if the goal is to reduce animal suffering (rather than to eliminate the use of animals altogether, as abolitionists like Prof. Francione favor), then animal-welfare campaigns and campaigns to encourage less meat eating could be complementary approaches (since both, at least in theory, could lead to a reduction in suffering). Part of the ambiguity here may be due to the fact that many of the large animal-welfare organizations include both people who would like to see the end of animal use and people who just want to see it made more humane. But getting clear on the goal seems to be a necessary first step in evaluating the effectiveness of various strategies.